Backstage at the Fenty × Puma spring show, James Kaliardos was busy layering models' faces with highlighter. "It's all about getting a reflective vibe going," he says. "There's no dark eye, which looks super fresh and cool." Recently named resident artist for Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, Kaliardos embraces the line's extensive range of colors and finishes, as well as its multitalented founder.
"Rihanna is hyper-intelligent and very good with makeup," he says. "And there's a lot of meaning behind Fenty Beauty. It's for that tough, rebellious, independent woman all my girlfriends relate to. It feels good to be part of something that goes beyond cosmetics."
Kaliardos has a history of gravitating toward strong women who understand the power of makeup. One of his first brushes with celebrity was when he prepped Madonna for a fashion event in the late '90s. "I walked in and [hairstylist] Luigi Murenu had her so far back in her chair, she was basically upside down," he says. "She looked up at me and said, 'Hi, James,' and I melted into a pool on the floor. We've been friends ever since."
Like Madonna, Kaliardos grew up in Michigan, and he became fascinated with makeup at the age of 7. "My mom had bold, exaggerated features, like Maria Callas," he says. "I'd watch her do her eyes, and that transformation process excited me. One day she let me try. I was hooked."
After moving to New York to study photography and design at Parsons School of Design, he spent a semester in Paris. There, beloved New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham would sneak him into shows at the Louvre. "I saw Comme des Garçons, Chanel..." Kaliardos recalls. "That's where I met many of the editors I'd work with later." Chance run-ins with photographers Steven Klein and Steven Meisel inspired him to get serious about his talent.
"When I met Meisel, I was wearing new wave makeup," he says, laughing. "It was the early '90s. He took one look at my face and said, 'You should start working now.' " Kaliardos signed with an agency and learned to juggle shoots with his class schedule. A few years later, he co-founded Visionaire, the highly conceptual art and fashion publication, which is still an industry favorite 27 years on.
He has also collaborated with fellow artist François Nars ("We've done campaigns and editorials together; I feel close to his sensibilities") and released a limited-edition makeup collection with MAC Cosmetics—all the while remaining a favorite among stars like Miley Cyrus, Kirsten Dunst, and Anne Hathaway.
"I like building a powerful face that can help get a woman where she wants to go," he says. But at the end of the day, "it should always be fun."
1. Fenty Beauty by Rihanna Match Stix Shimmer and Matte Skinsticks
Fenty Beauty | $25 each
2. MAC Brow Sculpt in Lingering
MAC | $21
3. Nars Audacious Mascara
Nars | $26
4. RMS Beauty Oil
RMS Beauty | $78